Education Opinion

Comparing Canada and the U.S. on Education

By International Perspectives on Education Reform Group — April 04, 2011 2 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

By Ben Levin

Most Canadians were very surprised when the OECD PISA studies ranked us among the best performing education systems in the world - and many Canadian probably still do not believe these results. Yet for four rounds now, Canada has been among the top performing countries, and also one with smaller than average gaps between high and low performing students.

Canada has many similarities to the U.S. in education. We have virtually no federal government presence in schooling; the 10 provinces and three territories run the systems. We also have a system of local districts with elected boards, as in the U.S., that developed as the country was settled by European arrivals. Many Canadian schools, especially in our cities, are very diverse; in Toronto, where I live, about 50% of the population was born outside of Canada, from all parts of the world. In western Canada, more than 10% of students are Aboriginal. Yet, Canada has consistently been a high performing country on international assessments of student performance. Compared to the U.S., the main difference is that Canada has a much smaller proportion of low performing students; performance at the top end of the distribution is quite similar.

Of course, one can never be sure about the reasons for those differences. Each country has a unique combination of culture, history and institutional structures, both within and outside education, and one can never be sure which results arise from which differences. But some important differences in education between Canada and the U.S. include:

  • Better trained teachers, reasonably well paid, with good job security and unionization. It’s hard to get into teaching in Canada, but our teachers are generally respected and treated well;
  • A strong commitment across the country to equity for all population groups (though there are still large achievement gaps in Canada, they are smaller than in most other countries);
  • Better basic services for all students and families, such as health care and social services generally;
  • Much smaller differences in funding levels from one district to another, and generally more spending in higher need communities;
  • Much consistency across schools and districts in curriculum and teaching methods.

It is this kind of examination that prompted the article with my colleagues Bob Schwartz and Adam Gamoran. We do not advocate the unilateral adoption of policies from one place into another, but we do advocate careful attention to what has worked in other places to see what can be learned.

The United States has a great tradition of universal and effective public education. It is one of the institutions that made the country great and supported the social mobility that brought so many people to the U.S. from other parts of the world. In my view, those traditions and practices still have value and can still form the basis for a powerfully effective education system that serves all children and young people well.

What are some of the outstanding features of education in the United States that should be supported and made more common?

Ben Levin holds a Canada Research Chair in Education Policy and Leadership at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. He is also a former deputy minister of education for the provinces of Manitoba and Ontario, Canada.

Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in The Futures of School Reform are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Evaluating Equity to Drive District-Wide Action this School Year
Educational leaders are charged with ensuring all students receive equitable access to a high-quality education. Yet equity is more than an action. It is a lens through which we continuously review instructional practices and student
Content provided by BetterLesson

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Schools Get the Brunt of Latest COVID Wave in South Carolina
In the past few weeks, South Carolina has set records for COVID-19 hospitalizations and new cases have approached peak levels of last winter.
4 min read
Two Camden Elementary School students in masks listen as South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster talks about steps the school is taking to fight COVID-19, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, in Camden, S.C. McMaster has adamantly and repeatedly come out against requiring masks in schools even as the average number of daily COVID-19 cases in the state has risen since early June. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
Education More States Are Requiring Schools to Teach Native American History and Culture
Advocates say their efforts have gained some momentum with the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd.
3 min read
A dancer participates in an intertribal dance at Schemitzun on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Mashantucket, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Connecticut and a handful of other states have recently decided to mandate students be taught about Native American culture and history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP